India’s Path to Freedom – Part 2

The freedom movement developed on the basis of truthfulness (satyagraha) and nonviolence (ahimsa), using the tools of passive resistance, civil disobedience (against individual laws that brought undue hardship), and noncooperation, by partially or totally ceasing to cooperate with the system that was recognized as corrupt.

India’s Path to Freedom – Part 2

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The ordinary people had to grow [1]

Wherever Gandhi was called to investigate and work to remedy grievances, he and his activists attended to the overall living conditions of the local population. This led them to teaching the rural population principles of hygiene and healthy eating, to cleaning wells in villages, and to building schools. Above all, they had to fight against the apathy that was the result of centuries of oppression and de facto lack of rights for ordinary people. The oppression had many faces: It was the inferiority of the casteless to the caste Hindus, of the lower castes versus the higher ones, of the poor versus the rich, of the powerless versus the big landowners and factory owners who did good business with the colonial masters. On the countryside, there was a widespread spiritual immobility, a dull acceptance of conditions, whatever they might be, which occasionally expressed itself in individual eruptions of desperate aggression and which had to be tackled as well as the other problems. Gandhi had nothing else in mind than to awaken a spiritual strength in the Indian population with which they could become aware of their human dignity and understand and claim their rights. In concrete terms, this meant that people had to be enabled to perceive themselves as citizens and not as slaves of the system. They had to be able to act calmly and peacefully against individual ordinances, i.e. to practice targeted noncooperation[2], without falling into a rage and throwing the entire system overboard. They also had to learn to bear the consequences of their peaceful resistance with dignity, for often enough this meant financial loss and imprisonment. Gandhi himself spent close to five years behind Indian[3] prison bars during his efforts for Indian independence; for Jawarhalal Nehru it was actually more than ten.

Thus, the freedom movement developed on the basis of truthfulness (satyagraha) and nonviolence (ahimsa), using the tools of passive resistance, civil disobedience (against individual laws that brought undue hardship), and noncooperation, by partially or totally ceasing to cooperate with the system that was recognized as corrupt.

In December 1928, the INC finally passed a resolution asking for self-government (as a dominion of the Empire) within the year. Otherwise, it would demand complete independence and fight for it with satyagraha. By December 31, 1929, the British government did not respond, so action had to be taken.

Most famous in this context is Gandhi’s salt march. In India, there had been a salt monopoly since 1882. No one was allowed to own salt that had not been produced by the government and taxed accordingly. Salt was often needed for religious ceremonies; it was also used to preserve, disinfect and pickle food. All this made salt a potent symbol of oppression, but also of resistance. It was against this that Gandhi took action, setting out with a growing group of followers on the 240-mile walk from his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to the Arabian Sea in Dandi on March 12, 1930. When Gandhi arrived on the beach at Dandi on the morning of April 6, 1930, he picked up a lump of salt and held it up high. This was the beginning of a nationwide boycott of the salt tax, as Indians learned to make their own salt from seawater. Personally, this action earned Gandhi a prison term of about eight months.

Not all resistance actions remained peaceful. When violence began to escalate across the country, Gandhi took responsibility, called for an end to all actions, and began a fast, which he did not end until the country was reasonably calm again.

Freedom and its price

The INC and the Muslim League, both of which had political responsibility in India, disagreed on issues of cooperation in the predominantly Muslim provinces and joint action against the British colonial power. The desire for power on both sides and, on the Muslim side, fear of Hindu predominance in free India may have promoted the discord between the major parties and its deepening to the point of ultimate hostility. The British, who were preparing their retreat, did their part by supporting the Muslim League and its partition plans, but no longer giving significant consideration to the plans of the INC, which had been the voice of India for so long. The concept of a free India as a federation of decentralized states was rejected, and under the leadership of the London lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the borders were drawn between India and West and East Pakistan (today Bangladesh). Thus, at midnight on August 15, 1947, two independent states were created, and an unprecedented migration began as Muslims fled India and Hindus fled the newly formed Pakistan – the demarcation of the borders had surprised many who no longer felt safe in the “wrong state”. Religiously motivated pogroms in the course of the partition cost about half a million lives, and about 14.5 million people crossed the borders that had just been drawn.

Gandhi’s noble project of satyagraha, which strived for universal humanity on the basis of spirituality and love and which wanted to bring about equal rights for all religions, the abolition of intangibility and the liberation of women for the whole people, always succeeded only selectively. Gandhi and his followers, who led simple and undemanding lives in their ashrams, were figures of identification, but at the decisive moment their example faded and the instincts of the masses gained the upper hand. In retrospect, it is easy to say that centuries of oppression, backwardness, dependence and entrapment in religious dogma cannot be shaken off in thirty years of struggle for liberation.

A different freedom

If Gandhi’s satyagraha had had the far-reaching success he had wished for, then the people of India – whether man or woman, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, poor or rich – would have been able to consciously meet each other as brothers and sisters. The struggle for external signs of attainment such as power or wealth would also have lost its meaning. People would have gained the freedom to set out on their own journey to spiritual humanness without the burden of an external struggle – for wealth or power, or against oppression. Gandhi himself was always the tangible example thereof: the eminent man, dressed in a hand-woven white dhoti, sitting at the spinning wheel, and being as needless in outward appearance as he suggested to others.

The question of who man is when he cannot define himself by religious or national belonging or on the basis of certain traditions and their values is still unresolved for the vast majority of humanity today. Whenever we “define” ourselves, it means demarcation. In doing so, we form units, but not an all-encompassing unity. In this way, we repeatedly create causes for conflicts and wars.

Basically, there can only be a movement towards real, especially spiritual, freedom when people achieve it for themselves individually. The radical change that people experience on this path internally then enables the transformation externally. Any freedom movement that intends a spiritual awakening must be based on individual effort. If enough people say goodbye to a thinking of demarcation and the striving for power, parties and states can also find new ways. In the end, Gandhi and Nehru both had spiritual aspirations, but they also had political tactics, even if both of them must be credited with not wanting the alienation and the eventual break with the Muslim League and, above all, the partition. Nevertheless, they contributed their part.


Further reading:

[1]     V.S. Naipaul: Indien – eine verwundete Kultur (India – a wounded civilization), Berlin 2006, p. 49

[2]     This term was shaped by Gandhi at the 1919 Congress of the INC in Amritsar. Noncooperation as an expression of satyagraha later became one of the practical methods to achieve independence from a regime considered corrupt

[3]     He had also spent about three years in prison in South Africa

[4] Mahatma Gandhi: The Story Of My Experiments With Truth

[5] Pankaj Mishra: From The Ruins of Empire. The Revolt Against The West And The Remaking of Asia. London 2012

[6] Shashi Taroor: Nehru. The Invention of India

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Date: August 30, 2022
Author: Angela Paap (Germany)
Photo: Corrie van Campen

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